It’s no secret that working with the federal government or as a government contractor means you might find yourself with access to privileged information. Being granted that access means that you must have, or be able to obtain, a security clearance.
Interestingly, a veteran with an active security clearance has a sizable advantage in the job market when competing for positions that require a clearance. But it’s still possible to land one of these jobs without an active clearance, if you understand the steps and what’s required.
The federal government issues security clearances, typically at one of three classifications – secret, top secret or classified – to employees and contractors so they can access protected and sensitive information.
To obtain a clearance, you must first apply to an open position that requires a security clearance, then follow the government agency’s direction to complete the appropriate application and investigative processes. Since they often end their military obligations with an active clearance, veterans often have an advantage when applying for jobs that require a clearance, whether in the public or private sector.
Whether or not you have a clearance, this article will review the ins and outs of security clearance jobs, how to pursue a job that requires a clearance, and a common pitfall of the approval process.
Can You Get a Cleared Job Without an Active Clearance?
While it’s true that you may be a more attractive candidate for certain jobs if you have an active security clearance, it is possible to find a job and then gain clearance. But it’s important to know that you can’t get clearance on your own. To initiate the application process, you must first be sponsored by a company or government agency for a position which requires access to classified information. You must also be a U.S. citizen.
While you go through the clearance process, you could be offered a job offer that allows the start of employment to be contingent upon obtaining at least an interim clearance. This type of offer is probably more likely to be extended to those in in-demand fields and with highly marketable skills such as software engineers, developers and those proficient in other languages.
How to Get a Security Clearance
Without a clearance, there are a few steps you’ll have to take starting with finding a company to actively sponsor you. Again, you cannot even apply for a clearance without a sponsor giving the government reason to consider your application. Here are the steps in the process:
- Job Application: The first step in the security clearance process is the initial job application. Any open jobs requiring a clearance also require that you be a U.S. citizen to apply. Once you have an offer, the next step is completing the Personnel Security Questionnaire (SF-86), a 127-page document that requires you to respond with a high level of transparency. Expect to provide information about a number of topics, including your education and employment histories, any foreign connections or travel, criminal records, illegal drug use or alcohol-related incidents, financial issues like unpaid bills or debts, civil court actions, misuse of computers or information technology, and more. All applicants also complete an evaluation process that covers national allegiance, a candidate’s honesty, values, mental fitness and any criminal activity.
- Investigation: The next step gets even more personal and involves an investigation conducted by agents representing the government’s Office of Personnel Management, the Defense Department, or the Office of the Director of National Intelligence or another investigation service provider. Agents will interview a broad range of a candidate’s contacts, which could include neighbors, family members, classmates and business associates or coworkers. The applicant will also be interviewed – perhaps multiple times – to clarify any potential issues that could affect the outcome. The total length of the investigation varies but expect it to last about 120 days. In some cases, it is possible to be granted an interim security clearance and start work in a temporary status until the investigation is complete. While an investigation phase is ongoing, applicants can receive the following status updates that reflect the process of their application:
- Received: The investigation request has been received and will be reviewed for acceptability.
- Unacceptable: The investigation request has been determined to be deficient. The applicant will then receive a message with the reason why the request was rejected. If the employee still requires a clearance, a new investigation request will need to be initiated and submitted with the corrected information.
- Scheduled: The investigation request is acceptable, and the investigation is currently ongoing/open.
- Closed: The investigation is complete and has been sent for adjudication.
» More about: Security Clearance Requirements
Levels of Security Clearance
There are three main levels of security clearance: confidential, secret and top secret. The agency or company, position and level of responsibility will determine which clearance level you will receive. If a position requires a security clearance, it is usually mentioned in a job posting. If it’s not, be sure to check with the agency’s human resources department to confirm whether it’s required and at what level.
Here’s what the security clearance levels mean:
- Confidential: This level is the easiest to obtain, and offers access to the lowest level of classified information.
- Secret: This second tier of security clearance provides holders with access to sensitive classified information.
- Top secret: This level offers access to highly sensitive classified information, meaning a highly selective number of roles require this type of clearance.
There are also two other designations for clearances used by the government for additional restrictions:
- Sensitive compartmented information, or SCI: This clearance includes certain classified and restricted methods and process, and may involve access to restricted intelligence sources.
- Special access programs, or SAPs: This level includes access to sensitive special projects and programs.
Benefits of Having a Security Clearance
Having an active security clearance can give you a major advantage over other job candidates, similar to having a special certification or degree. Having held a clearance previously is still a major advantage, even if it has expired.
An active or current clearance can even increase your earning potential, as those in cleared jobs – especially some of the more technical career fields with certification requirements – often receive higher salaries than their counterparts who don’t need a security clearance. Having a clearance of any level makes you more hirable, as it’s a simpler process to expand a clearance than obtain a new one. And as most cleared positions work directly on a contract, many hiring managers don’t have the capacity to place a new hire on hold while awaiting results from the clearance process.
Again, if you have never had an active clearance or have allowed your clearance to lapse, you will need an employee sponsor – either a government agency or a contracted company — to start the process. You can’t get one on your own.
Financial Trouble Can Sink Your Clearance
About 50% of clearance denials involved “financial considerations,” more than twice the next-most-frequently-listed issue for clearance denial. Excessive indebtedness is believed to increase the temptation to commit unethical or illegal acts in order to obtain funds to pay off debts. What’s more, most Americans who betray their country do so for financial gain. If you have financial concerns that you worry may impact your ability to obtain a security clearance, it may be time to contact a nonprofit credit counseling agency like InCharge Debt Solutions. Their counselors are trained and required to offer financial guidance that’s in your best interest, meaning you will see only the best options for working through your financial struggles.
About The Author
Craig Richardson is a military veteran who started his journalism career while serving in the Navy. Following overseas deployments to the Med and Middle East, including service in Operation Desert Storm, he left for the private sector but continued with journalism. He has worked for several publishers and news organizations over nearly 30 years and continued to cover stories with ties to veterans and military affairs throughout his career.
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